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American Sign Language: Lon Chaney Sr.

By Harrison Boxley
10/10/2012

"Star of the Silent Screen: Lon Chaney, Sr."

“I could talk on my fingers, but as I grew older, I found it unnecessary. We conversed with our faces, with our eyes.”- Lon Chaney.

As an actor, I am often reminded to use my facial expression and hands to convey the feeling or emotions that I want my audience to comprehend and share. Perhaps, the greatest actor known for his facial expressions was Lon Chaney, Sr. He was an artist with an impressive repertoire of gestures and facial and body movements that expressed his thoughts, passions, sensitivities and pains to those who regarded him. Lon Chaney, Sr. was a star of the silent film era his ability to use his acting and make up skills to achieve continual transformation acquired him the moniker of ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’.

Born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Leonidas Frank Chaney was the second of four children in the Chaney family. His father, Frank H. Chaney was rendered deaf at the tender age of two following a childhood illness, he professed to recalling some sounds and noises. Emma Alice Kennedy, the much adored mother of Lon, had been born deaf, her father Jonathan Ralston Kennedy founded the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in 1874, and it was here while working as a teacher that she meet Frank. When Lon was only nine years old his mother was stricken with inflammatory rheumatism rendering her incapacitated and tormented.

Lon and his siblings learned to communicate with their parents using facial expressions, hand gestures and a little sign language without ever uttering a word. He found himself able to look at his world around him as an outsider, while still participating in all that was going on. This ability helped him to choose character roles that he could empathize with and ultimately perform them notably well.

Two of Chaney’s best commemorated films and masterpieces of the silent era were “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”(1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Chaney carved distinctive personalities able to not only repel the audiences but generate immeasurable amounts of empathy with them as well. The use of make up and facial expression allowed Chaney to completely distort his own face into any character he wished to become. One of his other impressive roles was that of the legless criminal in “The Penalty” (1920) in order to simulate the look of a double-amputee, Chaney created a leather harness to strap his legs behind him so that he walked around on his knees. Such a device caused a great deal of pain “When I had my legs strapped up and couldn’t bear it that way more than 20 minutes at a time. It sometimes takes a good deal of imagination to forget your physical sufferings”. (Chaney) Hollywood loved Chaney and his quirky characters. His gift for playing a vast array of characters even made him the subject of a popular joke at the time: “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!” (Blake)

Sadly Chaney died at the height of his career, at the age of 47. He had appeared in approximately 160 films and was arguably the most successful star of the silent film era. Seven weeks after his only talking picture wrapped, Chaney succumbed to lung cancer. Studios all throughout Hollywood observed a minute of silence in honor of an unparalleled actor. Wallace Beery, a fellow actor said that Cheney “was the one man I knew who could walk with the kings and not lose the common touch”. (Beery)

Works cited:

“Lon Chaney. Biography.” Chaney Entertainment. n.p. n.d.

"Lon Chaney. The Man of a Thousand Faces.” American Masters. Michael F. Blake. Thirteen. Feb 2012.

Boehm, Volker. “Biography for Lon Chaney.” IMDB Pro. Amazon. n.d. 
 


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